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In this article we shall continue to study burial and funeral rituals of people around the world particularly Greece. Again funerals are the rituals, ceremonies or service/services fulfilled for a dead person usually before burial or cremation. In our past articles we have discussed more on burials so we shall continue to tell you more about burials.

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So how does the Greeks practice burial of their dead? What are the rituals involved? What are the significance and a lot lot more?


Greece Today

Greece is a country in southeastern Europe with thousands of islands throughout the Aegean and Ionian seas. Influential in ancient times, it's often called the cradle of Western civilization. Athens, its capital, retains landmarks including the 5th-century B.C. Acropolis citadel with the Parthenon temple. 

The acropolis in Athens is considered the symbol of Athens and Greece, and indeed of Western civilization, the Acropolis is a rocky mound rising in the heart of modern Athens and crowned by three ancient temples dating from the 5th century BC. Popularly known and most unique is the Parthenon, originally made up of 58 columns supporting a roof and decorated by ornate pediments and a frieze. The so-called Archaeological Promenade is a two-and-a-half-kilometer walkway, which skirts the foot of the Acropolis and connects it to the city's other main ancient attractions - the Ancient Agora , the Roman Forum, Kerameikos, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus.

You can also find the Acropolis Museum, which is now one of Athens' most-visited tourist attractions.

Greece is also known for its beaches, from the black sands of Santorini to the party resorts of Mykonos. Santorini, the most awesome of all the Greek islands is best known for the cliff-top towns of Fira and Oia, which lie on the west coast, overlooking the deep, blue sea-filled caldera.

Greece occupies a special position within the historical self-understanding of Europe. At the same time, it is situated geographically in the southeastern corner of Europe, on “the border of the Orient”.

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Ancient Greece

The term Ancient, or Archaic, Greece refers to the time three centuries before the classical age, between 800 B.C. and 500 B.C.—a relatively sophisticated period in world history. Archaic Greece saw advances in art, poetry and technology, but most of all it was the age in which the polis, or city-state, was invented. The polis became the defining feature of Greek political life for hundreds of years.

The history of Greece can be traced back to Stone Age hunters. Later came early farmers and the civilizations of the Minoan and Mycenaean kings. This was followed by a period of wars and invasions, known as the Dark Ages. In about 1100 BC, a people called the Dorians invaded from the north and spread down the west coast. In the period from 500-336 BC Greece was divided into small city states, each of which consisted of a city and its surrounding countryside.

There were only a few historians in the time of Ancient Greece. Three major ancient historians were able to record their time of Ancient Greek history that includes Herodotus, known as the 'Father of History' who travelled to many ancient historic sites at the time, Thucydides and Xenophon.

Most other forms of History knowledge and accountability of the ancient Greeks we know is because of temples, sculpture, pottery, artifacts and other archaeological findings.

But what is it exactly that we understand by the term “Ancient Greece”? For Europeans, Ancient Greece,  the Athenian polis (city-state) of the fifth century BCE, is generally regarded as the cradle of Western, European civilization, and the source of key concepts such as rationality and democracy. Throughout historical scholarship, the model most favored has been that of the polis and its citizens, a public, male world that, in turn, makes the nation male.

Ancient Greece is a very long but interesting topic. We would like to give you a hint and a little backgrounder of our subject. For now we shall move on to our main topic which is burial.

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Ancient Burial Practices

The ancient Greek appreciation of the afterlife or death and the ceremonies associated with burial were already well established by the sixth century B.C. In the Odyssey, Homer, a famous poet who is known for the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, describes the Underworld, deep beneath the earth, where Hades, the ancient Greek god of the underworld, the brother of Zeus and Poseidon, and his wife, Persephone, reigned over countless drifting crowds of shadowy figures—the “shades” of all those who had died. It was not a happy place. Indeed, the ghost of the great hero Achilles told Odysseus that he would rather be a poor serf on earth than lord of all the dead in the Underworld (Odyssey, 11.489–91).

Serfs are peasant farmers who provided manual labor in their master's land. The peasants would pay the lord some dues (in the form of labor) in exchange for using part of the lord's land to generate their own food.

As mentioned by homer, ancient Greece also employed burial under the earth and continued the tradition of the after-life existing below the ground. The ancient Greeks (perhaps following an Egyptian tradition) made sure to provide their dead with carefully carved stones to remind the living of who the deceased were and what honors were still due them. Remembrance of the dead was a very important civic and religious duty, not simply a personal concern, and was dictated according to the concept of eusebia which, though frequently translated into English as `piety', was much closer to `civic duty' or `social obligation'.

Eusebia dictated how one should interact with one's social superiors, how the youth treated their elders, how masters interacted with slaves, and how husbands treated their wives. It also extended, though elevated to the concept of housia (holiness) to one's relationship with the gods.

On other references the Greeks believed that at the moment of death the psyche, or spirit of the dead, left the body as a little breath or puff of wind. The deceased was then prepared for burial according to the time-honored rituals. Ancient literary sources focus the necessity of a proper burial and refer to the omission or erasure of burial rites as an insult to human dignity (Iliad, 23.71). Relatives of the deceased, primarily women, conducted the lengthy and intricate burial rituals that were customarily of three parts: the prosthesis (lying out of the body (54.11.5), the ekphora (funeral procession), and the interment of the body or cremated remains of the deceased. After being washed and anointed with oil, the body was dressed (75.2.11) and placed on a high bed within the house. During the prothesis, by the way the prothesis mention in this article is the action of placing the Eucharistic elements on the credence table. Relatives and friends came to mourn and pay their respects. Mourning of the dead is featured in early Greek art at least as early as the Geometric period, when vases were decorated with scenes portraying the deceased surrounded by mourners. Following the prothesis, the deceased was brought to the cemetery in a procession, the ekphora, which usually took place just before dawn. Very few objects were actually placed in the grave, but monumental earth mounds, rectangular built tombs, and elaborate marble stelai and statues were often erected to mark the grave and to ensure that the deceased would not be forgotten. Immortality lay in the continued remembrance of the dead by the living. From depictions on white-ground lekythoi, we know that the women of Classical Athens made regular visits to the grave with offerings that included small cakes and drinks poured out as an offering.

Different Greek city-states observed their own particular burial rites but the one aspect they all had in common was the continued remembrance of the dead and, especially, their names.

Sons were named for their father's father and daughters for their mother's mother in order to preserve the memory of that individual (to take one example, Aristotle's son, Nichomachus, was named for Aristotle's father). Whether buried in an elaborate and intricate tomb or in a simple grave, the Greeks maintained that the dead must continually be remembered and respected in order for their souls to continue to exist in the afterlife.

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In this particular discussion, we would like to talk about ancient Greek death rituals seen from a gendered perspective, meaning considering male or female gender, in this case based on women. The information that follows is based on Evy Johanne Håland's fieldwork. Her study deals burial and death rituals particularly in Greece, but also in Italy and other Mediterranean countries, including her studies of ancient Greek culture.

According to her from Death in General to Greek Women and Death in Particular Little attention has been paid historically to the topic of “Greek Women and Death” from a gender perspective, where fieldwork is of central importance, and where the focus is on how she, the author, presents the voices of her informants alongside the historical sources. Thus, the present volume fills a manifest gap. But, why does she study “Greek Women and Death”?

Death is crucial to the formation, manifestation, and elaboration of social structures and hierarchies. The death of a member of a society threatens its stability and the descendants’ performance; in particular, women’s performance of the necessary rituals before, during and after the burial rites incorporates a concern for the spiritual world and the ancestors as well as for the society in general. Hegel once wrote that history is the record of “what man does with death” because “the dead did not bury themselves”. Death lies beneath all facets of humanity, and is therefore a crucial factor in the development of societies. The stability of society and the cosmos is not only threatened during a death but, conversely, death is also a means by which it is possible to encapsulate and grasp the dynamics that constitute both society and the cosmos. Death triggers reconstitutions of society and of the cosmos that invoke descendants and divinities alike. Both in earlier times and today, all over the world, we encounter peasant societies where the living are dependent on the deceased mediator’s successful communication with chthonic powers in order to assure the continuity of their own lives through the fertility of the earth.

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Death Rituals and the Cult of the Dead in Greece 

Despite the significance of death, its pervasive role in the constitution of society has often been neglected, with some exceptions however. The most notable works on death were written many decades ago; some have also been reprinted, for example, Robert Hertz’ Death and the Right Hand (1960), originally published in French in 1907. Peter Metcalf and Richard Huntington’s (eds.) Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual originally from 1979 (2nd ed., rev. 1991) examines the relationship with death and the handling of this period of crisis in the life cycle.

Another important work reprinted several times is Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry’s (eds.) Death and the Regeneration of Life (1982). More recent publications in the field of death include The Buried Soul by Timothy Taylor (2002), and Death, Mourning, and Burial: a Cross-cultural Reader edited by Antonius C. G. M. Robben (2004), although all the articles in this collection had been published elsewhere previously. Several studies on the cultures of death and dying deal with specific periods or places, such as Paul Binski’s Medieval Death (1996), Sandra Gilbert’s Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve (2006), and The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations, edited by Bryan J. Cuevas and Jacqueline I. Stone (2007). Nicola Denzey’s The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Christian Women (2007) deals with late antiquity, drawing mostly on Latin sources. Apart from these studies, mortuary rituals are often touched upon in ethnographies, although little emphasis has been put on death as a process of transformation by which society and the cosmos are created. Death rituals and celebrations of new social structures can be seen as an opportunity to renegotiate and recreate society and the social order. By using death, gender and women’s values as analytical entrances as well as empirical case studies, it is possible to use an often underestimated category of data in order to shed new light on deep traditional and resilient processes in society that encompass the relationship between man and woman within the family, the household and the village, the town, city and state. Hence, a study of gender, women and death opens up new perspectives on the social world while also increasing our understanding of contemporary transitions in Europe in that it combines, questions and unites micro- and macro-levels.

Among the growing though divided scholarship on the ancient Greek material, Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, in her book, “Reading” Greek Death: To the End of the Classical Period (1995), discusses Greek mortuary practice as a system of behavior based on cultural attitudes from Homer and archaic grave monuments via later mostly written but also visual sources until the end of the classical period. However, she omits a significant amount of archaeological evidence in her eagerness to distance herself from Ian Morris’ Death-Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity (1992), since his analysis of mortuary data based on excavated remains of burials rejects what he sees as limiting text and object-based approaches. The present study does not pick a side to follow within this divided scholarship on literary versus material sources, but seeks instead to use both. It also argues for the importance of changing their northwestern European approach when studying both ancient and modern Mediterranean societies, where one does not necessarily encounter the same frame of reference and values as found in northern Europe. This means that regardless of how many or of which categories of sources we apply when reading or reconstructing ancient society, they will not uncover anything about ancient society without the author’s knowing what questions we should ask the sources. The sources gave them the possibility of interpreting ancient society, not of entering it: ancient society exists only in our minds, because the sources are signs from another cultural context and not identical to it. That the surviving Greek literary texts were written for a small elite, as Morris has argued, and that the authors such as, for example Plato, Aristotle and Euripides were intellectuals and thus did not represent the majority of people is true; but all the written sources from antiquity are the product of intellectuals. The intellectuals were also part of the society in which they lived, revealed “implicit” concepts in their work, and were therefore guided by a common mentality. This also holds for much of the archaeological material, since, for example, funerary markers are also constructed, or raised, to communicate a message. The salient question here is from which perspective should this message be understood, the northern or the Mediterranean part of Europe? This crucial issue becomes more acute when we try to deal with both men and women, and their relationships with death, since the former produced most of the sources, while the latter seems to have had a central role in connection to death rituals.

Several scholars have examined death, moving from the study of death to its association with the social order and vice versa.

Also according to the writer, Béchec 2013 is also relevant for this study; however, despite it being a recent study building on her dissertation, there are two problems: firstly, it presents an outdated view on the relationship between magic and religion (10) and secondly, although it is an important topic within gender studies, only men are considered within the study. 

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Death Rituals and the Cult of the Dead in Greece examine death is to look at society through female eyes.

 The topic of “Women and Death” in general has been explored in Western thought and literature. Historical perspectives on the representation of Greek women, also in connection with death, have equally been investigated.

 Margaret Alexiou has attested the strong position of the lament in Greek tradition from antiquity via the Byzantine era to contemporary society. Following Alexiou, several researchers have also investigated the topic of lament in the ancient and modern periods. Most publications on themes related to women and death have indeed focused on lament, often through documentation of the condemnation of the practice of female lamentation, particularly in modern and ancient Greece.

 The arguments of these studies will be questioned in this work. Likewise, it is her intention to show that not only are laments important in connection with death, but the same importance is also illustrated by other elements of death rituals in the Greek context, such as meals and food offerings at the tombs and their ingredients; the importance of a series of commemorative ceremonies after the burial involving gifts; days dedicated to the dead and various symbols such as statues, pictures and bones. In connection with the burial ceremonies, the most lavish funerary monuments were erected in the sixth century B.C. by aristocratic families of Attica in private burial grounds along the roadside on the family estate or near Athens. Relief sculpture, statues (32.11.1), and tall stelai crowned by capitals (11.185a-c,f,g), and finials marked many of these graves. Each funerary monument had an inscribed base with an epitaph, often in verse that commemorates the dead. A relief depicting a generalized image of the deceased sometimes evoked aspects of the person’s life, with the addition of a servant, possessions, dog, etc. On early reliefs, it is easy to identify the dead person; however, during the fourth century B.C., more and more family members were added to the scenes and often many names were inscribed (11.100.2), making it difficult to distinguish the deceased from the mourners. Like all ancient marble sculpture, funerary statues and grave were brightly painted and extensive remains of red, black, blue, and green pigment can still be seen (04.17.1).

The discussion about ancient Greek burials is very long and very interesting. We shall try to add more information on our next article.

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